I’ve been blessed to have preached and taught, full and part-time, for nearly 25 years. Countless hours have I listened to lecture style teachers, revival style preachers, expository, topical, and indefinable sermons. I’ve read numerous books on sermon preparation and delivery. Spent days upon days in preparing sermons, talks, and devotionals. The painful experience of listening to audio recordings of my sermons has not been overlooked either, though they have produced an equal measure of squirming and sighing.
Recently I was in a discussion about expository preaching. One participant advocated for “more expository preaching. Not less.” This is a common response in my denominational tradition. Many seminarians in various denominations are led to believe that expository preaching (verse-by-verse through books of the Bible) is the only right way to preach. Others, including myself, see value in various ways of preaching including narrative, thematic, and topical. I would also add textual as a type of sermon in which a single passage is exegeted, but not the entire book.
I tend toward expository sermons—though I have preached thematically, topically, and textually throughout my ministry. Each can be done well, and each can be done poorly. The most important issue is that truth is communicated clearly to the listeners gathered to hear. With these things in mind, here are eight things I have observed about preaching.
- Most Christians really want to know what the Bible teaches. Despite what some preachers think, that’s why they keep showing up week after week. In some churches the issue is not that people have itching ears, it is that the preacher has a repetitive tongue. Too many preachers cannot string together enough related thoughts to make it through a passage without running off the road. A sermon that begins on the virgin birth winds up in politics, premarital sex, and cultural decline. It’s as if Jesus is a footnote in His own birth announcement.
- Most folks in church prefer a little enthusiasm in the preacher. Perhaps not screaming, but raising the voice to make a point offends almost no one. I doubt there is much room for a preacher who yells from beginning to end like a cat caught in a fan belt. No one—neither child nor adult—appreciates being screamed at for 30 or 40 minutes. Besides, if everything is yelling at full volume it becomes impossible to emphasize anything. On the other hand, it is possible to pull back so far that the congregation might wonder whether the pastor himself is even awake. A balance can be struck.
- Preaching for the congregation rather than at them is a big differentiator in how a sermon is received. The pastor who understands his role as a shepherd cannot help but love the flock. This begins with how he addresses the sheep in the sermon. Throw rocks at the wolves. Provide truth for the congregation like a weekly feast of the Word.
- Saying “we” rather than “you” lets the congregation know that the pastor realizes he isn’t perfect. Saying “you” all the time is preaching at or down to the people. No preacher should incessantly use the word “you” in the corrective mode: “If you want to be closer to God you need to have a quiet time. You cannot grow if you ignore God’s word. You’ll find yourself in a morass of sin.” We’ve all endured it; a few of us have done it. Are not these charges true of the pastor as well? Why not say, “If we as followers of Christ want to be closer to God, we need to spend time alone with Him. We cannot grow if we ignore God’s word. We’ll find ourselves in a morass of sin if we do not engage with God on a daily basis.” Of course there is a place for the direct use of “you.” Whether pastors yell, whisper, or something in between, people condemned from the pulpit feel defeated in the pew.
- Humor and sound preaching are not mutually exclusive. A pastor need not do a stand-up routine each week or have an opening monologue at the start of the message. It might work for some, but most preachers simply are not that funny. That does not mean there is no place for humor in a message. Remember: humor is a language. It is a means of communication. Serious truth can be delivered at the end of a laugh. Humor is a problem when it overshadows the truth, not when it delivers the truth.
- Some expository preaching stinks as do some expository preachers. This might be too close for comfort, but it is true. I’ve heard them and you probably have, too. Sermons so wobbly the only person in the building who believes exposition has taken place is the person preaching. It does not matter how many verses one reads and talks about, without context, connection to the Biblical narrative, and application to the individual life, it is doubtful that exposition is anywhere near the pulpit.
- Topical preaching can be biblical preaching. Jesus preached topical sermons. Paul preached topical and thematic sermons. On the day of Pentecost, Peter did not say, “Now open your scroll to the book of Joel.” He used a passage in Joel and verses from three psalms. By nearly any definition his was a topical message. When Peter preached in Acts 3 and when Stephen preached in Acts 7 each was a narrative sermon with text support. Jesus sermon in Luke 4:16-27 was not expository by any current use of the term. Preachers must fight to keep out opinion, bias, and presupposition in every style of preaching. Expository preaching is not the silver bullet of spiritual or church growth. Topical preaching can bring heat, light, truth, and conviction as well as any style.
- “Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality” (Phillips Brooks in his 1877 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale). I remember as a young pastor saying within earshot of my Mom, “I want to be the next D.L. Moody or Charles Spurgeon.” She replied, “God doesn’t want another D.L. Moody or Charles Spurgeon. He wants a Marty Duren.” God calls each person because there is a task for that person. Preachers can be as bad as anyone else to become enamored with heroes. There is nothing wrong with learning from others, but God intends to use our uniqueness. Paul was never told, “Learn to preach like Peter.” Apollos was never told, “Learn to preach like James.” Our personalities, when submitted to God’s will and empowered by God’s Spirit, can be strong tools in communicating the truth of God.
What observations would you add?